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U.S. suspends training Syrian rebels as FBI warns of growing ISIS threat

In this image posted on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State, shows Islamic State militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria. Islamic State militants seized several villages from rival insurgents north of Aleppo city Friday, in a surprise attack that came despite intensive Russian airstrikes that Moscow insists are targeting the extremist group, activists said. Arabic reads, "Targeting positions of the Alawite army in Tal Arn with mortar shells." (Islamic State militant website via AP)

As U.S. officials struggle to find effective strategies to fight ISIS on the ground in Syria and online, a group of imams have launched an online publication intended to offer a counter-narrative to the propaganda the terrorist organization is spreading across social media.

The Obama administration announced Friday that it is suspending a troubled program intended to train Syrian rebels to fight back against ISIS. The strategy had faced criticism last month when the military acknowledged that only four or five rebels trained in the $500 million program were actually engaged in combat.

Officials stressed that the training program could be revived in the future if the situation on the ground justifies it, and the U.S. will continue to support rebel groups in other ways. One of those methods will be providing equipment to groups whose leaders have been vetted.

"I believe the changes we are instituting today will, over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria and ultimately help our campaign achieve a lasting defeat of ISIL," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

The ultimate goal of defeating ISIS and removing Syrian President Bashar Assad has not changed, officials told reporters on Friday morning.

"We've made clear that we see no lasting resolution to the conflict as long as Assad is in power," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.

Brent McGurk, deputy special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said the circumstances on the ground are "the most complex situation imaginable." To be effective, the U.S. strategy needs to be adaptive, and this change is an effort to do that.

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth described the battlefield in Syria as "an incredibly complex quilt" and disputed allegations that the training program was poorly executed.

Rhodes called Russian airstrikes in the region, which the U.S. contends have not been aimed at ISIS targets, "extraordinarily counter-productive." He also argued that, although there is a coalition military campaign focused on defeating ISIS, the resolution to the conflict will need to be political.

"The conflict is not going to be won militarily," Rhodes said. "We have been very candid about that. This is not going to conclude with one force completely defeating another on the battlefield."

Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University who studies terrorism, told Sinclair Friday that he is not surprised the rebel training program has been unsuccessful.

According to Abrahms, the viability of moderate rebels as an alternative to Assad and ISIS was overestimated and there are simply not enough of them. Only a small number passed the vetting process to get into the program, and many of the fighters who completed training have either been defeated or defected.

A different kind of war is playing out on the internet, where the ideas of peaceful Islamic leaders are now challenging those of the extremists.

The second issue of Haqiqah, an online magazine published by British imams and scholars, was posted Thursday and presents Europe's refugee crisis as evidence that the Islamic State is failing.

"This 'state' professes to be a sanctuary for its fellow Muslim brothers and sisters but its barbaric nature only serves to push more and more people away," an editorial states.

An article by Shaykha Safia Shahid addresses female Muslims and warns them not to let ISIS entice them into traveling to Syria because they will be forced into marriage to violent jihadists.

"Do not engage, online or otherwise, with Jihadist propagandists that offer you marriage as a means of escaping from your world to theirs," she writes.

"Nowhere in the Islamic tradition do we see any justification for what Daesh are doing," says Dr. Mohamed el Sharkawy, using another name for ISIS, in an essay that questions why anybody would emigrate to the brutal and violent regime with the desire to escape persecution.

The first issue of Haqiqah, released earlier this year, was aimed at "educating the Muslim youth about the reality of extremist movements." Quoting the Koran and other documents of the Muslim faith, one article makes the case that the ISIS caliphate is illegitimate. Another explores whether the teachings of Islam support extremism and acts of violence.

Abrahms said this type of content could be effective if it comes from highly-respected Muslim leaders, particularly those in the Middle East.

"If [ISIS supporters] think that that ideology is actually bankrupt, they will be less interested in joining," he said. Reports do indicate that some ISIS fighters have become disenchanted and fled the caliphate.

"It's not a silver bullet," Abrahms cautioned, because many people who join militant groups are not necessarily driven by ideology.

The magazine is one of many efforts by civilians to do what governments have failed to do and chip away at the strength and prevalence of ISIS propaganda online. Others have included coordinated attempts to get jihadist Twitter accounts suspended, Google-bombing ISIS-related search results, and posting first-hand accounts of those hurt by the group.

Abrahms disputed the importance some place on a state-run campaign against ISIS on social media. He feels the strength of the group is driven more by its military victories than its social media prowess.

"Islamic State is also really good at beheading people, but I don't think we should practice our beheading skills," he said, questioning the logic of the government launching a social media counter-campaign just because ISIS uses social media well.

"The real reason why Islamic State blossomed was because of its military successes," Abrahms stated, and much of that success came before western nations really started paying attention last year.

While the imams behind Haqiqah are producing counter-propaganda, new research explores exactly what subjects ISIS propaganda is focusing on now and what that could mean for the future.

In a study released this week, researcher Charlie Winter of the Quilliam Foundation examined over 1,000 pieces of propaganda released over the course of the Islamic month of Shawwal, from mid-July to mid-August. He broke them down into categories and found that more than half primarily focused on depicting an idyllic society under the caliphate.

"The IS 'caliphate' is marketing itself on an industrial scale. If we are to destroy its brand, we must first be able to fathom its depths," Quilliam Foundation Managing Director Haras Rafiq wrote in an introduction to the report.

Winter found that a small percentage of propaganda events during the period studied were devoted to the themes of mercy, belonging, or brutality. His research also looked at the geographic areas targeted with each theme, and he found the brutality content (2.13% of the propaganda) was often aimed at a regional audience rather than the international community.

"The intended audiences for its ultraviolence are decidedly more regional than they have been in days gone by...Fostering international infamy is now secondary to intimidating its population," Winter wrote.

He speculated that the low number of mercy narratives (.45%) reflects a lack of desire to rapidly expand territory. Propaganda with a theme of belonging (.89%) could play a significant role in appealing to foreign recruits, but it was also rarely seen.

Winter saw far more content reinforcing themes of victimhood, war, and utopia.

Victimhood narratives (6.84%), showed images of civilian victims of airstrikes and damaged infrastructure. "Graphic evidence of civilian casualties is Islamic State's lifeblood and the more graphic the evidence, the more powerful the propaganda," Winter wrote.

The second most common theme was war (37.12%) and that content was largely focused on showing ISIS as victorious. Winter suggested that videos of militants firing mortars may have been staged outside of combat areas.

A majority of the propaganda (52.57%) showed happy, peaceful civilian life under ISIS rule with a particular focus on religion and economic activity. Winter said this content was "inevitable and necessary" for the state to present itself as legitimate.

"'Statehood' is the group's chief appeal, one that is just as crucial domestically as it is abroad. With its 'caliphate' narrative as a unique selling point," he wrote.

The recent shift to propaganda glorifying civilian life in the caliphate makes sense, Abrahms said, because the more violent content seems to be proving less successful as a recruitment tool.

Mark Drumbl, a professor at Washington & Lee University School of Law, told Sinclair the extreme violence in some videos could eventually backfire and provide ammunition to those trying to fight ISIS.

"At what point can you achieve boredom through your sensationalist extremism?" Drumbl said.

Placing the focus on state-building could mitigate that effect. Also, the international crisis caused by Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing to Europe has undermined the notion that ISIS has developed a utopian Islamic society.

"When Muslims are fleeing in the hundreds of thousands to get out of these areas, it reveals the fact that Islamic State is not the best area for Muslims to live," Abrahms said. Many of the refugees are also coming from the areas controlled by Assad's forces, he noted.

Leaked documents have also provided fresh insight into how ISIS funds its activities, and they suggest its current revenue streams may not be sustainable in the long term.

The blog Jihadology posted the documents earlier this week, which show sources of ISIS revenue in one province in eastern Syria from January 2015. Less than one third of the money came from oil sales. Most of the rest was obtained through taxes and confiscations.

To some extent, this is a vulnerability because there is a limited amount of revenue and property under ISIS control that can be seized from its population. On the other hand, as Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes on Jihadology, these sources of funding are much more difficult to cut off militarily than oil fields would be.

Stealing people's stuff is not an effective long-term financial plan, Abrahms said.

"The Islamic State's main relationship with the population is coercive in nature and that's problematic," he explained.

Despite these potential weaknesses, FBI Director James Comey cautioned at a Senate hearing Thursday that combating the threat of terrorism by ISIS and groups like it remains the agency's top priority.

"A lot of us are still thinking of the terrorism threat through the paradigm of what I call 'your parents' al-Qaeda,'" Comey said. ISIS is a different threat, in part because of its use of social media, which he described as "a great way to crowd-source terrorism."

"It buzzes in the pockets of troubled souls, unmoored people all across this country every day," he said.

Thursday's hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs revived concerns about ISIS recruiters using encrypted communications to talk to American followers and addressed fears about terrorists sneaking into the country among Syrian refugees.

Comey acknowledged that the government followed "dozens and dozens" of Americans over the summer who were engaged in communications with ISIS. He said the concern is that these conversations can shift to encrypted systems, which he has described as "going dark" because intelligence agencies cannot monitor them.

He also said ISIS recruits in the U.S. have been getting younger and they are increasingly targeting young females.

"I don't know whether what we experienced this summer will be the new normal," Comey said.

Although many experts have questioned whether a member of ISIS would try to bluff through the extensive refugee screening process instead of using any number of easier ways to get into the U.S., officials admitted during the hearing that their ability to ensure a refugee does not have terrorist ties is limited.

"The intelligence picture we have of this particular conflict zone is not as rich as we'd like it to be," said Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Comey expressed confidence that the government has an effective method of checking refugees against all its databases, but he also acknowledged there are "certain gaps" in the information available. He would not elaborate on those gaps in public.

"You can only review against what you have," Rasmussen said.

The potential deficiency is only the latest of many challenges the U.S. government must overcome in the battle against the ISIS threat.

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